PBS NewsHour / YouTube What testimony on the Trump dossier...
PBS NewsHour / YouTube

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee released the transcripts of their interview with Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson. The transcript shows how Fusion’s research led to one firm conclusion: Donald Trump, successful businessman, is an illusion. Instead, Trump is the front man for a dark money empire—the big-talking distraction whose gold-plated lifestyle provides a glittering smokescreen around money laundering on an epic scale.

Fusion turned up many of the same inconsistencies between Trump’s public face and his private finances as previous checks on his background like that conducted by the Financial Times and others. Trump, while claiming to be a billionaire, actually seemed to have neither any legitimate source of funds nor access to credit. 

MR. SIMPSON: You know, someone who says they’re a billionaire but can’t get a bank loan, you know, there’s this whole issue of where is the credit coming from. And so, you know, we were always trying to figure out where – how he was financing various things. 

The primary difference between the information in the Senate transcript and that in the House transcript isn’t so much what Simpson said, but that he was allowed to say it. The Senate interview, conducted by staff, is so riddled with interruptions and with attacks on Fusion, Simpson, and former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele that it’s a fragmented mess where not a single Republican asks a single question that pertinent to the investigation which is supposed to be underway.

By contrast, the House interview, conducted directly by the congressmen on the committee, reveals a group that clashes over procedures, but is surprisingly able to reach agreement and talk through issues. The House transcript gives every appearance of a functioning committee, with an actual interest in uncovering information. And the result was … information. Plus a pretty definitive look at Trump’s career as a real estate frontman for mobsters.

MR. SIMPSON: As we pieced together the early years of his biography, it seemed as if during the early part of his career he had connections to a lot of Italian mafia figures, and then gradually during the nineties became associated with Russian mafia figures.

The House committee allowed Simpson to talk at length. The result provides excellent insight into how research firms like Fusion GPS work, what that work costs, and who pays the bills. It also gives a good sense of the difference between the kind of research that Fusion does and the work that Steele did for them. Where Fusion is primarily a financial research firm that looks through public records to uncover connections, Steele works directly through personal contacts with his leave-behind network of intelligence sources.

That means that while Fusion can often point to documents backing up the items they generate directly, the information coming from Steele is dependent on the reliability of his sources. Many of those sources seem highly placed, but even naming those sources puts Steele’s network at risk. 

That difference: Public documents on one hand, private statements on the other, is why Fusion segregated most of Steele’s work. Fusion also left Steele’s work in the form it came into them—a series of transcriptions and field memos—rather than summarizing it as they did with the information they collected from court transcripts and financial documents. The result was a stack of memos that have become the “dossier”—a dossier that wasn’t paid for by the FBI or any other government agency, and wasn’t generated by political operatives.

For anyone with an interest in how research firms operate, how intelligence agents work, and how both companies and political parties use these resources to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, the House transcript is utterly fascinating.

The biggest news about Steele’s network was this exchange:

MR. SIMPSON: I have·great trust in Mr. Steele’s professional ability to find sources with credible information.

MR. ROONEY: Did you know how he paid these sources?

MR. SIMPSON : Yeah. You know, essentially, my — what I was doing was corroborating the information they were providing — or trying to — or determining whether it was credible. So that was a lot of the work that we did there.

I think you asked about paying of sources. I think that’s something that’s erroneous that’s been in the press.

MR. ROONEY: How so?

MR. SIMPSON: To my knowledge, Chris does not pay sources for information.

Many Republican claims about the so-called dossier come back to the idea that “Hillary Clinton paid Russians for stories about Trump.” But Steele dealt with his existing sources. No one got a “give me info on Trump” payment. The House transcript may also be the first time it was clear that Steele did not travel to Russia as part of this assignment. As an identified intelligence operative, stepping foot in Russia would almost certainly land him in jail … or in the ground.

The bigger part of the House interview focused not on the information uncovered by Steele, but on what Fusion surfaced concerning Trump’s finances. Trump’s means of generating funds ranged from the same kind of semi-legitimate use of real estate as a means to buy entry into the United States that Jared Kushner has been pushing in China, except with an added tinge of espionage …

MR. SIMPSON: … this Jersey City project, and it was going to be financed by selling visas to foreign citizens who were seeking green cards from the United States. And I knew from previous investigations that that program was— there were a lot of irregularities in that program, and that, in fact, the government, the U.S. Government had conducted previous investigations into whether foreign intelligence figures were using the EB-5 program to get people into the United States.

On to Trump’s connection to Bayrock and Felix Sater, which was also again a focus of discussion. So where the already well-known Russian connections for condos at Trump SoHo and elsewhere. 

Even Trump’s overseas golf courses have an apparent Russia connection.

MR. SIMPSON: The other one that is — was concerning to us was – is the golf courses in Scotland and Ireland. 

MR. SCHIFF: And did you see Russian money involved with those as well?

MR. SIMPSON: Well, we had — you know, we saw what Eric Trump said about Russian money being available for his golf — for the golf course projects, making remarks about having unlimited sums available. And, you know, because Mr. Trump’s companies are generally not publicly traded and don’t do a lot of public disclosure, we can only look — have a limited look into the financing of those
projects. But because the Irish courses and the Scottish courses are under U.K., you know, Anglo corporate law, they have — they file financial statements. So we were able to get the financial statements.

What those records showed was some source that pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars. It wasn’t Trump. It wasn’t a bank. Simpson had suspicions that it was coming from just where Eric Trump said it did, but the sources were sufficiently obscure that he couldn’t be certain.

Again and again the conversation turned back to the same thing: In Russia, the mafia and the government are interchangeable. Vladimir Putin leads the criminal organization not only inside Russia, but around the world.  And when these guys settled on Trump as a means to launder money through real estate, it’s not just some individual oligarch ditching ill-gained rubles. It’s the Russian government buying influence in the United States.

MR. SCHIFF: If the Russians were laundering money through Trump golf courses or Trump condos, would the Russian Government be aware of this? Would they be either knowing or active participants potentially in this?

MR. SIMPSON: Well, so what is well known and well established in criminology now is that the Russian mafia is essentially under the dominion of the Russian Government and Russian Intelligence Services. And many of the oligarchs are also mafia figures. 

And the oligarchs, during this period of consolidation of power by Vladimir Putin, when I was living in Brussels and doing all this work, was about him essentially taking control over both the oligarchs and the mafia groups. 

And so basically everyone in Russia works for Putin now. And that’s true of the diaspora as well. So the Russian mafia in the United States is believed by law enforcement criminologists to have — to be under the influence of the Russian security services. And this is convenient for the security services because it gives them a level of deniability.

So I’m sorry for the long answer, but essentially, if people who seem to be associated with the Russian mafia are buying Trump properties or arranging for other people to buy Trump properties, it does raise a question about whether they’re doing it on behalf of the government.

It’s answers like that which make the House transcript a must-read product. Unlike the Senate transcript, even Republicans asked Simpson questions pertinent to the investigation. There were concerns about what can and can’t be said in a congressional hearing. In particular, there was a lengthy discussion of whether Simpson should have to break agreements to reveal more about his clients, as the House doesn’t recognize client privileges. But these disagreements were dealt with in a genuinely professional way, and the result is a much more insightful look at what’s behind the “dossier”—and a great deal of other work done by Fusion—than anything else we’ve seen.

Often it’s what’s in the Fusion end of the information that’s by far the more interesting, because what it shows—over and over and over—is that Donald Trump wasn’t just involved with criminal activity, he was often at the center.

And there are chains of connections that Fusion was talking about months ago, which are now showing up in the news from other sources.

MR. SIMPSON: It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA. And there is more than one explanation for why. But I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations. And they targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA. And so there is a Russian banker-slash-Duma member-slash-Mafia leader named Alexander Torshin who is a life member of the NRA.

Fusion spent time looking into Torshin and to Maria Butina, “A big Trump fan in Russia, and then suddenly showed up here and started hanging around the Trump transition.”

It’s all part of why Fusion hired Steele in the first place. Everywhere they looked with Trump, they ran into Russia. So they needed an expert on Russia to take their search to the next step.

Finally, if you want one moment of pure non-Russia-related joy from the transcripts, take this one …

MR. SIMPSON: … a lot of [Trump’s] income comes from trusts and things that his father set up, and that he doesn’t actually make that much money, you know, in terms of profits from his own activities. He still funds much of his — from, you know, assets that were acquired by his father.

Not only has Donald Trump spent his career in the pocket of various crooks, the central myth of the Trump universe, the idea that he ever created anything on his own, is also an enormous lie.

He’s never had enough money to fund the projects that bear his name, and what money he had before he went on the take for one mob or the other, came from daddy.

NOTE: New link to transcript added as it no longer seems to be available on the House document repository.

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